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Weird & Wonderful Cinema Around the World
By Pete Tombs
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1997 Pete Tombs
All rights reserved.
HONG KONG PART ONE
Crazy Kung Fu!
And in the beginning, there was Bruce ...
'The uninitiated might be forgiven for thinking that kung fu was some kind of oriental King Kong,' wrote the British magazine Continental Film Review in August 1973. 'Not so, it's a form of Chinese combat which Bruce Lee purveys without stint in the Hong Kong action pictures which are the newest fashion in filmgoing.'
Even before people knew exactly what he did, he was a star.
Of course, martial arts in movies had been around a long time before Bruce Lee arrived on the scene. Their roots lie in techniques developed by the monks of the ancient Shaolin Temple. Built more than 1,500 years ago on the slopes of the Songshan mountain range in the remote plains of central China, the monastery was a centre of Ch'an or Zen Buddhism. This was a form of meditation brought to China by an Indian monk, Tamo. To sharpen their minds and tone their bodies the monks practiced ITLχITL exercises to control and harness their physical energies. Out of these exercises came many of the techniques that were developed into kung fu.
One of the paradoxes of the Shaolin training is that it is an apparently aggressive art devised as a means of controlling aggression. Anyone who has seen even a few of the classic kung fu movies from the early 1970s will be struck by how formalised and almost balletic many of the moves are; completely unlike a street fight, where punches are thrown merely to inflict damage. As the kung fu adepts say: "Emphasise the inner meaning, not the outer strength."
With the arrival of Bruce Lee, martial arts found a different kind of hero. He had certainly studied the Shaolin techniques and knew their spiritual base. It was circumstance and above all his personal temperament that led Lee in a different direction. Growing up on the streets of Hong Kong in the mid-1950s, he acquired a reputation as a kid who never avoided the chance for a good scrap. What marked him out from traditional martial artists was his hunger to win at all costs.
Lee had been born in San Francisco where his father, a famous Chinese stage star, was working at the time. When things got too hot for young Bruce in Hong Kong, his mother took advantage of his dual nationality to send him back to America to attend college. It was there Lee developed and refined his study of the martial arts, eventually perfecting his own style, which he called jeet kune do, or 'Way of the Intercepting Fist'. It was an aggressive, attacking style that suited him down to the ground. It favoured close physical contact and was perfect for the movies.
The Bruce Lee story, in all its mythic ramifications, has been told too many times to go into in detail here. A short version would begin with Lee hired to play the part of the oriental manservant Kato in the 1966 TV series The Green Hornet. When the series was shown in Hong Kong in 1970 (retitled Kato), Bruce Lee returned to capitalise on his success as a man who'd made it in the West. The first company he approached was Shaw Brothers, one of the biggest players in the whole South East Asian market. The company president, Run Run Shaw, offered him their standard deal — a seven year contract for $2,000 per picture. Highly insulted, Lee signed with former Shaw employee, and now main rival, Raymond Chow. For Chow's Golden Harvest company he began work in 1971 on The Big Boss (confusingly known as Fists of Fury in America). The film was a big hit and was followed, in the same year, by Fist of Fury (which was called The Chinese Connection in the States). Then, in 1972, came Lee's first film as director and star, Way of the Dragon.
The American company Warner Brothers had enjoyed considerable success distributing a 1972 Shaw Brothers' film called King Boxer (aka Five Fingers of Death). The deepening crisis in the film business, brought about by the end of the Hollywood studio system, made these low-budget, fast action movies very attractive to profit-hungry executives. Bolstered by the success of Lee's Hong Kong productions, Warner's Fred Weintraub brokered a deal with Raymond Chow to make a modern day, action adventure movie in the style of the James Bond series, but featuring real martial arts. The result, in 1973, was Enter the Dragon, directed by the American Robert Clouse. The film was a huge success, and effectively created the world-wide cult for kung fu. Its basic format (good guys versus bad guys, built around a martial arts contest), has been used in innumerable American productions since. As the kung fu craze snowballed, Lee planned his next film.
Then, on 20 July 1973, much to everyone's surprise, Bruce Lee died at the age of thirty-three. His body was found in the apartment of actress Betty Ting Pei. The cause of death still remains cloaked in mystery. Officially he died from a haemorrhage caused by taking aspirin. Other stories say he was experimenting with drugs or bizarre sex. Whatever the reasons, the effect was devastating. It was as if a wedding had been planned, with the guests all assembled ... but there was no bridegroom.
Bruce Lee's body was hardly cold in the coffin before the legend began to grow of the hard fighting 'Little Dragon' from the streets of Hong Kong, his rapid rise to the top and his mysterious death in the flat of a sex starlet. Naturally, this was an opportunity too good to be missed. While Lee's death was a tragedy for martial arts fans, it was a godsend for exploitation movie-makers. They had already been profiting from the post-King Boxer interest in kung fu movies. Small independent companies had descended on the colony, buying up any film featuring fighting and releasing it to the world with a suitably aggressive title. Now they jumped in to fill the Bruce Lee gap. Strange hybrids began to appear. Real-life events became mixed up with events from Lee's films. The truth became inseparable from the fiction — understandable when nobody really knew the truth in the first place.
The fact that the adult Lee had only starred in four movies during his lifetime was something of a boon. Aware that most audiences wouldn't know this, many companies began to search out lookalike actors and rename them as close as legally possible to the real thing. Soon there was a Bruce Li, a Bruce Le, a Bruce Liang and a Bruce Leung. Slightly more imaginative was Dragon Lee, closely followed by Conan Lee. Even Spanish sleazemeister Jesús Franco joined the fray with Bruce Lin. Martial arts writer Bey Logan calls these the 'Leealikes'.
A popular ploy was to use these imitation Lees in heavily fictionalised biopics. Dragon Story is a fairly typical example, starring one of the better Leealikes, Ho Chung Tao, known as Bruce Li. The film begins with Lee working as a newspaper boy in the States. He looks about twenty-seven years old. His supposed martial arts skills are demonstrated by his ability to hit a fat girl's butt with a rolled up newspaper as he cycles past at speed. He comes up against a rival gang of black newspaper boys. This bunch look well into their thirties. "Hey man, we run this place!" they sneer. "Who are you?!" Bruce shows them who he is with a few well placed high kicks.
In Hong Kong, Bruce gets a quick lesson in the economics of the local film business. Demanding US$10,000 per picture he's told that even big stars only get HK$1,000 per month. The balance has to be made up from backhanders and sponsorship deals. The film contains lots of parodies of real people. Mr Lo (The Big Boss director Lo Wei) is characterised as a fat, talentless rip-off merchant. "Where shall we set the angle?" asks his assistant director on set. "Ask the cameraman," growls Lo. "What shall we do now?" Lo takes his big cigar out of his mouth just long enough to shout: "Fight! Fight! Fight! Just fight!"
At the film's launch party Lo is besieged by starlets wanting a role in his next flick. "Don't worry," he assures them. "The next picture is about prostitutes. I'll need all of you!"
Soon Bruce is wooing Betty. Hilariously, at this point the schmaltzy soundtrack suddenly becomes a booting sax-led jig, introducing an unmistakable air of Benny Hill to the soft focus love scenes that follow.
The strangest mixture of real-life and fiction came in the 1975 Shaw Brothers release Bruce Lee and I. The film starred Betty Ting Pei, the woman in whose flat Lee had breathed his last. Renamed The Sex Life of Bruce Lee in some territories, it purported to tell the truth about their relationship. The story is framed by an encounter with a sympathetic bartender to whom Betty relates the sad saga. The film builds slowly to the long awaited climax. Betty sprays perfume on her giant round bed and strips off while Bruce (as played by Li Hsiu Hsien), popping pills and smoking endless joints, gives her a final workover. If this outrageous blend of fact and fiction was perplexing for the audience, it must have been even stranger for Miss Ting Pei.
Of course, there are only so many variations that can be wrung out of one life, even one as eventful as Lee's. Soon the bandwagon moved on to deal with life after Lee.
Black Dragon's Revenge (or Black Dragon Revenges the Death of Bruce Lee) doesn't feature a Leealike. Instead there's a Lee Van Cleef-alike! With one crucial difference — he's black martial artist Ron Van Cliff. A mysterious Chinese businessman gives him $100,000 and an air ticket to Hong Kong to find out who killed Bruce Lee. A local sect of kung fu experts are on the same trail. The film gives plenty of opportunity to rehearse the list of reasons for Lee's death: "People say ... he die ... of oversex!" one character blurts out. Another maintains that he was killed by drug barons who wanted him to die as a junkie so that kids all over the world would follow his supposed example and buy lots of heroin.
As the kung fu mystic master says at one point in the film: "Stupidity may be great wisdom." Or maybe not.
Probably the wildest of the post-mortem Lee rip-offs was The Clones of Bruce Lee. The producer of the film was exploitation legend Dick Randall. In this cheap and cheesy concoction, a scientist takes a syringe of blood from the dead Lee. He uses this to create three 'clones'. It's never quite explained how, but these clones grow to maturity in about three minutes. Their training consists of them breaking piles of roof tiles while uttering Bruce Lee style yelps. Under the aegis of an Organisation called SBI, they are sent off to save the free world. Bruce One takes on a crooked film producer who is moonlighting as a gold smuggler. Bruces Two and Three are sent to Thailand to put paid to "a certain Dr Nye". Dr Nye has created an army of bronze men. "Ha ha! Soon I will conquer the whole world!" he cackles, as his metal warriors (actually a bunch of flabby extras covered in gold paint) go into action. Every time someone hits them they go 'clunk'.
Within the low-budget film world, the martial arts formula was like a spark to dry timber. The flames spread quickly. There were martial arts movies from countries as far apart as Turkey (Tarkan Kolsuz Kahramana Karsi), India (Onanondu Kalladali) and Brazil (Bruce Lee versus Gay Power). The most bizarre rip-offs were the ones that were announced but never made. Ilsa Meets Bruce Lee in the Devil's Triangle probably takes the prize here. Areas where the Chinese controlled the film business, or had big ex-pat populations, like the Philippines, Singapore and Indonesia, were especially fertile territory.
The world had been starved of real heroes for too long. The martial arts film, particularly the Bruce Lee version of it, with its plucky 'Little Dragon' taking on all-comers and righting wrongs in a burst of screen action, was a godsend. They were cheap to make and returned their investment every time. Even wacky items like The Human Tornado found a receptive audience. In this blaxploitation comedy, the overweight, chitlin' circuit comedian Rudy Ray Moore gives the most outrageous display of martial arts ineptitude ever committed to celluloid. The odd thing is that it works a treat.
Unlike the Chinese martial arts films of the 1960s, most of Lee's films had contemporary settings. The imitation Lee movies followed suit. As the time was the early seventies, this meant flared trousers, outrageous afro hairdos and flowery shirts with vicious collars. Shaft-style music filled the sound-tracks, with wah-wah guitar licks, and there were even psychedelic sequences. Soon, in the immortal words of the Carl Douglas song, "Everybody was kung fu fightin' ..."
Had Bruce Lee not died so young, it's more than likely that the Enter the Dragon formula would not have taken such a firm grip on the West's view of martial arts. Lee's subsequent movies might well have followed a very different track. More traditional, Shaolin-based stories could have become the norm. However, it's important to bear in mind that by the mid-1970s, when the Bruce Lee cult was still strong in the West, the Chinese martial arts film was already in decline. This was very much a post classic period. The kung fu film had always been a confusing mixture of influences. Tony Rayns singles out 'ancient Chinese drama, pulp fiction, the Italian peplum and the Hollywood fantasy' as some of the more obvious. Now, in a bid to give the genre a boost, all kinds of strange hybrids were being created. In this context the Bruce Lee clones made a weird kind of sense.
By the mid-seventies there had already been Eastern Westerns (Kung Fu Brothers in the Wild West), kung fu science fiction (Three Stooges vs the Wonder Women), a martial arts/sex comedy from Germany, Enter the Seven Virgins, and a Hammer-Shaw co-production, The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires (aka The Seven Brothers Meet Dracula). Hong Kong had even taken on Japan (Zatoichi vs the One Armed Swordsman). To hedge their bets, the film-makers shot two different endings: in the film shown in Hong Kong, the one-armed Chinaman wins, in the Japanese version, Zatoichi triumphs.
The seventies craze for kung fu meant that all sorts of local productions were being imported to the West. The majority of them would never normally have made it out of the traditional South East Asian circuit for which they were intended. Many of them were highly bizarre. A choice item known as Snake Girl Drops In just about takes the biscuit for cheesy weirdness. Three men out for a mini safari in the jungle meet a cheeky forest maiden. She winks seductively at them as she hops from tree to tree wearing a bubbly blonde wig. When they catch her and take off the wig they discover that she's got snakes instead of hair. They take her back with them to 'civilisation', where they attempt to exploit her as a freak. A variety of comic scenes show her eating live frogs and watering her snakes in a gents' toilet as she tries to adjust to her new lifestyle. Eventually, one of the men (the youngest and most handsome of course) takes pity on the snake girl and sets her free. Then, to the sound of wah-wah guitars and Swingle-style background singers, a Keystone Kops chase ensues through bars, cabarets and back streets.
The bad guys hire a transvestite wizard to track down the snake girl. The wizard's number one trick is the ability to free his head from his body. The head then floats off to find the girl. Meanwhile, back in the jungle ... The girl's little sister (played by, the credits assure us, 'world known child star Dyna'), who has magic powers, comes to save her, accompanied by hundreds of snakes. At the sight of her, a girl pees her pants. About a gallon of liquid pours down her flared pink trouser-suited leg.
Excerpted from Mondo Macabro by Pete Tombs. Copyright © 1997 Pete Tombs. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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